When anyone can set up a YouTube channel overnight, become an internet sensation the next night, get their own show the night after that, then start being referred to as ‘a genius’ within a week, I believe there is much weight in the opinion ‘genius is overused these days’. However, in this case I can assure you it is not.
Caroline Aherne tragically passed away this weekend, finally succumbing to a persistent battle with cancer, but this article isn’t about that, it’s about the contribution of a writer/performer who was genuinely ahead of the curve. And that (for one to be ahead of the curve) is true genius.
Aherne’s ability to always be ‘one step ahead’ can be seen in her two magnum opus(es), The Mrs Merton Show and Royle Family. The Mrs Merton Show was a mock talk show hosted by the character of Mrs Merton asking questions to her celebrity guests that could be asked by no other. Disguised as the elderly Merton, Aherne got away with asking what no journalist in their right mind would ask without fear of being taken to court. Of Merton’s most famous moments one that stands above all is her question to Paul Daniel’s wife Debbie McGee, trying to understand what exactly bought the two together- ‘so what attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?’
Her next project and arguably her masterpiece was The Royle Family. Aherne wrote and starred in the archetypical British sitcom as Denise Best, only daughter of James ‘Jim’ Royle and wife Barbara. If you’ve never owned a TV, (surely the only accuse to never watching the show) the premise’s brilliance was held in its sheer simplicity- a working class family, polar opposite to their namesake (The Royle-royal family) spending time together in the most British of ways- round the telly. You’d think there’s not a lot to work on with that premise, but Aherne was a visionary who viewed situations in shades no one else could see. Not only did The Royle Family run for three series with 25 episodes and a multitude of 60 minute features, audiences became emotionally connected with the likes of slob Jim Royle, the facile Barbara, and the perennial underachiever Anthony, in a way akin to the best loved characters of British soap opera in a fraction of the time.
There is a reason that I describe The Royle Family as ‘archetypical’, a term that can also be used to describe The Mrs Merton Show, and an idea in support of the argument Aherne was a true genius ahead of her time. The Merton Show and Royle Family have given rise to dozens of imitations- Keith Lemon, Lee Nelson, Lemmy (in a nod to our friends North of the border), Gogglebox and The Ali G Show (the latter setting off a Hollywood career). It is within this retrospect that her loss is specifically painful to an industry that is in desperate need of originality rather than imitation.
Throughout the ages, across the world the British mentality has been known for its ingenuity creativity boldness and determination. All these virtues can be associated with Caroline Aherne, the actress and writer who seemed to understand the British culture like no other, and found how to convey it in the most reasonable of ways.
Rest in peace Caroline.
Caroline Aherne 1963-2016